Judaism is a religion of many things: food, opinions, tradition, family, community, and contradictions. The laws governing Jewish religious life have plenty of loopholes, get-out clauses, and alternative interpretations. But the laws themselves remain rigid and intransigent. The sages tell us that eating hot food on Shabbat is a good thing. Unfortunately, we're not supposed to light fires or cook — and about a million other things that are regarded as 'work' — after the sun goes down on a Friday night until an hour after it has set on Saturday. In order to accommodate this, we have cholent. Cholent sums up Judaism in a pot. It is the meal prepared, invariably to a family recipe, on a Friday and left to cook overnight, to be eaten Saturday lunchtime when everyone has come home from schul.
Cholent is the Ashkenazi word for this calorific bubbling swamp of tastiness. (I know, I'm really selling it here, aren't I?) It is believed to come from the French chaud (hot) and lent (slow). Sephardi Jews tend to call it by its Moroccan name: Dafina. The recipes do vary slightly, to reflect the availability of regional ingredients and the different styles of cooking, but essentially they are the same: chunks of stewing beef cooked with pearl barley, beans of some description, onions, a vegetable of some sort, and seasoning.
Just to be difficult, my family has always referred to it as beans and barley. That's probably a result of living in the UK for generations. The recipe I've set out below bears influences both Sephardi and Ashkenazi: it's typical heirloom food. Recipes are passed from mother to daughter (or in my case from my grandmother to me). You don't really write them down. It's never exactly the same twice. They can be adapted to suit availability and your needs. But it is always familiar, always comforting. And yes, that means you can interpret the recipe as you wish. Change the beans to those you prefer. Maybe you'd rather use spinach instead of carrots. Add some potatoes if you fancy. If you're really looking to ladle-out the calories, how about some dumplings? After 27 years of having this shovelled down me, I'm accustomed to the flavour of beef, and most of the recipes I've ever seen stipulate beef or veal, but if you'd like to try it with lamb, I don't think I'd object. Too much.
I can't apologise for the vague quantities (although I can say with some certainty this is enough for four) or directions. It's just the way that it is. Believe me when I say that you will know what it needs, or if something isn't right.
- 500g (1lb) stewing steak, cut into 2.5cm (1") cubes
- 150g pearl barley (Actually, I use 5 handfuls. My hands are small.)
- 2 medium onions, quartered
- 3 very large carrots, cut in chunks; or five smaller carrots, still cut in chunks
- 1 can butter beans, drained and rinsed (If you'd prefer to soak and cook your own, that's fine. My grandmother, whose recipe I use, tells me she hasn't done that since 1874 BCE.)
- 1 can baked beans (Okay, so this isn't terribly 18th century shtetl authentic. If you'd rather soak and cook haricot beans, use tomatoes, and add some brown sugar, be my guest.)
- Salt and pepper
Take a large flameproof casserole. Place the beef in it, and cover with at least one litre (two pints) of water. Bring it to the boil slowly. Please do it slowly: fast will result in tough meat.
Skim the scum off of the water.
Add the carrots, onions, and pearl barley, and season well. No, that's not enough. Season it some more. And a bit more after that. Bring it back to the boil and then reduce to a steady simmer.
Now, if you are going to proceed in a halachically observant manner, add the beans, and stir. Cover the casserole with greaseproof paper, and then the lid. Put it in the slowest oven you can manage, and leave it to cook overnight. Yep. In deepest darkest winter this can mean almost twentyfour hours. Really. You might have to keep an eye on the liquid levels and add more water if it needs it, and check for seasoning before you serve it.
If you'd rather not risk burning down your house, ruining your favourite casserole dish, and wasting a perfectly good piece of meat, leave the pot on the hob, simmering gently, until the barley has absorbed all the liquid and is cooked. This will take at least one hour. Possibly longer. You might well have to add more liquid. When that's done, add the beans, and stir. Check the seasoning and adjust as required. If you'd like to eat it now, heat the beans through until piping hot, and serve. In bowls, with spoons. If you can leave it to mature for a day or two, so much the better. But you still have to serve it in bowls. With spoons.